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Precision railroading strategy buckles under US legislative onslaught

Under mounting pressure from a string of derailments, US Class I railways are abandoning elements of their predominant operational strategy of recent years .

Precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is in retreat as legislative pressure on the carriers keeps building.

On 30 March, legislators in the House of Representatives tabled a bill aimed at improving railway safety – the fourth proposal in Congress to step up measures for rail safety since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NS) train in East Palestine, Ohio, in February, which forced the evacuation of residents as several rail cars carrying hydrochloric acid came off the rails.

The incident cast more light on railways widely accused of putting profit before safety and, if anything, that glare has intensified in recent weeks with news of more freight train derailments.

The latest rail safety initiative in Congress came hours after a BNSF train, carrying ethanol and corn syrup, derailed at the town of Raymond, in Minnesota. Hundreds of local residents had to be evacuated after four tank cars carrying ethanol ruptured and caught fire.

Two weeks earlier, on 16 March, BNSF suffered two derailments in one day: one train came off the rails in Arizona; and another in Washington State, the latter resulting in a spill of nearly 19,000 litres of diesel fuel. The cargo on the train in Arizona included corn syrup, a flammable substance, but no fire, spill or injuries were reported.

Under mounting pressure to address safety issues Union Pacific (UP) has officially dropped plans to reduce train crews to one person, a plan fiercely opposed by labour unions.

In a way, management was bowing to the inevitable. Two of three pieces of legislation already before Congress include a mandate for a minimum crew size of two on a locomotive, which has support from both parties on Capitol Hill, suggesting the legislation will be ratified.

The Class I rail carriers had strongly opposed the two-person crew mandate, arguing that new technologies, especially mandatory automatic braking, had rendered one crew member redundant.

And the repercussions from the derailments extend beyond the minimum crew mandate and other safety-related issues, striking at the PSR concept itself. Among the lawsuits NS faces as a result of the fiery derailment in East Palestine is a class-action suit from a law firm that specialises in shareholder rights.

The suit from Bragar, Eagel & Squire blames the pursuit of PSR for the derailment and its repercussions. It argues that PSR led to longer and heavier trains operating under tight schedules with fewer staff, which undermined safety. This led to the accident in February, which resulted in a decline in the NS stock price.

It is an ironic twist that a strategy aimed primarily at boosting stock value through heightened operating ratios has come under fire from the shareholder side.